Sunday, August 06, 2006

All Guys

Every summer, undergrads from other colleges work with my research group. This summer, I have 3 in my group and all 3 are from small liberal arts colleges. They wanted to get some experience doing research at a large university because they are thinking about applying to grad schools in the fall. So, in addition to doing some interesting work this summer, they are testing the waters to see if grad school is in fact what they really want to do, and, if it is, if this is the right field for them. And of course the research experience helps if they do apply to graduate programs.

I have been talking to them about where they might apply, how to go about applying, and things like that. A century ago when I was applying to graduate programs, my main concern was finding an advisor and program that best fit my research interests. In recent conversations with the female students, however, I have found that they are very aware of gender ratios in the departments they are considering for graduate school. I mentioned one excellent school to one of my interns, and she said "I would never want to go there. I looked at their website and it's all guys." True, though "the guys" there are excellent researchers and some of them are even nice people/advisors. I don't think she cares if she has a male or female advisor; she's just checking to make sure that the department as a whole has a good climate for women students, and is using the number of women faculty as an indicator of this. I think this is fine, and I wonder if these departments know that they are missing out on some top applicants because of their lack of women faculty.

Fortunately for my intern, these days it is unusual for a department to be so extremely male dominated, so if she's going to use that criterion, she still has lots of excellent options. Even so, what if The Best Place for her research interests was at a bastion of maleness? Unless I knew that there was a serious problem with how women were treated there, I would encourage her to apply/attend.

Even if a department has women faculty, this is of course no guarantee that faculty (male or female) are sensitive and caring individuals and good advisors. I have a few colleagues who could definitely treat their students (again, male and female) better, but the women students generally have more trouble dealing with obnoxious advisors. When women graduate students talk to me because they are in despair about how their obnoxious male advisors treat them, I always say that I understand it is difficult (and we talk about whether there is anything constructive that can be done), but the most important advice I give them is to stick with it. I say "If you quit, then academia will continue to be populated by people like your advisor. If you stay, then YOU will be a professor and you can make a difference in changing the academic culture". I know that I'm advising them to suffer in the hopes that it might eventually be worth it, but the alternative seems even more bleak.


Anonymous said...

Speaking of SLACs - you mentioned in a n earlier entry that you'd spent a year teaching at one, before moving on to Big Research U. Can you elaborate a bit more on that move? Was it hard to get interviews and job offers, having spent a year away from the bench?

Thanks, and thanks for your blog.

ScienceWoman said...

When I looked at grad schools, I wanted the best place for my research interests regardless of the M:F ratio. I never even thought about it. But as I've been applying for jobs, I've been very alert to the proportion of women faculty in prospective departments. Maybe because this time around, I want the best place for me, not just my research. Maybe your interns are taking that perspective about grad school.

avocadoinparadise said...

Or they could change advisors/schools. Sometimes it's not worth it to stick it out in a situation that sucks.

Anonymous said...

Depending on the field, there may or may not be a strong correlation between departments that offer graduate students a female-friendly environment and departments with female faculty. In my extremely male-heavy field, for instance, there are just so few senior women that the correlation can often break down. For instance, my graduate department had no female faculty, but I found it to be a very friendly environment for women nonetheless. (The number of female postdocs can in these cases often serve as a useful barometer.)

However, you did mention that in your field, the gender imbalance is not quite so severe, so one might be more wary of a department with absolutely no female faculty.

hypatia said...

When I looked for jobs one thing I took note of was wedding rings and baby pictures.... More = better. Regardless of whether I was looking at a male or female faculty member. Dogs and single people got minuses.

Cherrie said...

I never thought about the F:M ratio either...until I got into the lab last summer and most of the people in the lab were male... but then I thought it was sort of funny because then I could kick some butt.

But the lab's grown now and it's about 50:50. =)

Ms.PhD said...

I looked very carefully at the gender ratios for grad school. I don't think you can judge the best place for your research interests when you're coming out of college- your interests are going to change so much, and you don't even know it yet.

I had a miserable time despite the relatively higher female ratio where I went to school, but I still think it would have been even worse in the massively male-dominated departments. As it was, I was still always treated like a child, while my male peers were not.

Dear Hypatia, what an offensive comment! Especially since ScienceProf here wrote about how she doesn't wear a wedding ring!

Personally, I've seen no correlation whatsoever between married vs. unmarried advisors.

People with (especially younger) kids tend to be absent or unavailable a lot more, which in my experience is usually bad for the lab, even if the person is extremely nice and happy from having such a well-rounded personal life. But that's a temporary issue in most cases.

Unfortunately I haven't been lucky enough to work for anyone who had young kids but still managed their time well enough to always be available when we needed them. Instead I always end up picking up the slack for them, which usually isn't my job, and just makes me resentful. They don't notice or appreciate it, either (that's an n=3).

In fact, I think the worst scenario is to be in a lab when the advisor is getting divorced. I'd much rather be in a lab where the advisor was single and is getting married!

re: dogs, I'm not a dog person, either, but again, I've seen no correlation so far in terms of advisors who have them or don't. But, I have seen some clubby bonding between dog-owning advisors and dog-owning lab members. It reminded me of the cliches about how if you want to be good at networking, you have to take up golf. Arf!